Fisherman's Wharf, Monterey, California. Image credit Toms Auzins via Shutterstock

9 Must-See Historic Towns in California

When one thinks of the West Coast, the beautiful coastline of California often comes to mind. California is home to crystal blue waters of the Pacific Ocean and flooded with sunshine making it an ideal location for a getaway. The state has an official population of 39 million people, making it the most populous US state, but hidden between the major cities of California lies a history unlike any other within the country. These must-see historic towns range from gold rush boom towns to towns surrounded by the towering trees of redwood forests. The Sunshine State hides an abundance of adventure and history only to be discovered by those who visit.


Red Church on Washington Street in historic downtown of Sonora, California.
Red Church on Washington Street in historic downtown of Sonora, California. Image credit StephanieFarrell via

Dating back to the early 1800s, this historic town was once the by-product of a booming gold rush that swept through the region. Today, the town still features historic buildings that date back to the town’s golden origins. Stroll down the historic Washington Street which is lined with fascinating museums like the Tuolumne County Museum, that highlight the area’s past.

For outdoor adventure, the Dragoon Gulch trails offer plenty of hiking opportunities for various skill levels, which allow everyone to enjoy Sonora’s natural beauty.


Victorian storefronts in Ferndale, California.
Victorian storefronts in Ferndale, California.

Known as the gateway town to California’s “Lost Coast,” Ferndale is in Humboldt County amongst Northern California’s redwood forests. Begin your exploration of the historic town by taking a stroll through the town's well-preserved historic district, admire the stunning Victorian homes, and be sure to witness the locally renowned “Gingerbread Mansion.” Dive deeper into the history and visit the Ferndale Museum, which offers insights into the area's rich history, including the important role dairy farming played in the town’s prosperity.

For a more relaxing experience, enjoy a picnic in the beautiful Russ Park, which is home to lush greenery and tranquil walking trails with views covering the entirety of the Eel River Valley. For outdoor enthusiasts, nearby attractions like the Lost Coast and Humboldt Redwoods State Park provide opportunities for hiking, camping, and wildlife viewing in stunning natural settings. The region's renowned dairy farms make the local dairy products a must-try when visiting, so be sure to stop by Sarvinski Dairy for fresh artisanal cheeses.


Afternoon foggy sunlight shines on historic downtown Benicia buildings, California
Historic downtown Benicia, California. Image credit Matt Gush via Shutterstock

This beautiful waterside town is known for its sandy beaches, beautiful sunsets, and ocean vibes but there is much more that lies beneath the coastal town. Benicia is one of the oldest cities and the former Capital of California. It has withstood the gold rush, and the Wild West and witnessed the creation of the transcontinental railway.

It comes as no surprise that there is a long history within the area, so don't miss the Benicia Arsenal, which is a historic military base turned into an arts district, where you can explore studios, galleries, and the Benicia Historical Museum. Continue to explore the heritage by visiting the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park, home to California's third capital building. To enjoy the fresh coastal air, enjoy the waterfront activities like fishing, kayaking, or paddleboarding along the Benicia Marina, or take a scenic hike in the nearby Benicia State Recreation Area, offering panoramic views of the Carquinez Strait.


The Old Town of Truckee, on Donner Pass Road, is well known for its great restaurants, art galleries, and gift shops.
The Old Town of Truckee, on Donner Pass Road, California. Image credit David A Litman via

Whether you are an adrenaline junkie seeking thrills on the slopes, an aficionado of small-town charm, or a wanderer in search of scenic vistas, Truckee offers an experience that transcends the ordinary.

Your journey should start with a visit to Donner Memorial State Park, where you can learn about the tragic Donner Party and explore the museum and scenic trails. Next, head to Historic Downtown Truckee, boasting charming shops, galleries, and eateries housed in restored buildings from the 19th century. Don't miss the Old Jail Museum for a glimpse into the town's colorful past. Outdoor enthusiasts will love the opportunities for skiing and snowboarding at nearby world-class resorts like NorthStar California and Palisades Tahoe (formerly Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows), offering breathtaking views and exhilarating slopes. Finally, take a scenic drive along the Donner Pass Road for stunning vistas of the Sierra Nevada mountains and beautiful Donner Lake.


Historic Emporium building in Jamestown, California.
Historic Emporium building in Jamestown, California. Image credit travelview via

Not far from Sonora, learn about the California Goldrush when you visit historic Jamestown and explore the area’s heritage that highlights the journeys made by those who sought golden fortunes. Start by exploring Railtown 1897 State Historical Park, where you can ride an authentic steam train and learn about the importance of the railroad since the creation of the town. Don't miss the opportunity to visit Jamestown's iconic landmarks, such as the Jamestown Jail and the Jamestown Hotel.

To get that golden feeling, try panning for gold and plan an authentic mining experience at the Jimtown Gold Mining Camp, perfect for entertaining visitors of all ages. Also, don’t forget to take a moment and appreciate the natural beauty of the surrounding Sierra Nevada foothills, providing a scenic escape for those visiting.


Stagecoach near a historic building, Columbia State Historic Park, Columbia, California.
Stagecoach near a historic building, Columbia State Historic Park, Columbia, California. Image credit Michael Vi via

Close to Jamestown and Sonora, this former golden boomtown was once the location of one of the more profitable mines in the region. Like many of the towns in the region, people flocked from all over the world to chase their dreams. Luckily, the town has preserved that heritage, and visitors can skip back in time to obtain a real Western experience. Begin your journey at Columbia State Historic Park, a preserved Gold Rush town with authentic buildings, exhibits, and costumed interpreters transporting you to the 1850s.

Afterward, take your exploration underground when you visit the Mercer Caverns (north of town), walk through the hollow caves, and marvel at the natural beauty hidden within the earth. Don’t forget to plan some outdoor adventures with plenty of hiking trails in nearby Stanislaus National Forest which hosts various trails accessible to various skill levels.

Crescent City

Foreground view of the Battery Point Lighthouse in Crescent City, California.
Battery Point Lighthouse in Crescent City, California.

Hidden along the rugged coastline of Northern California lies Crescent City, an oasis for those wanting to explore history and nature, and a scenic small town. First and foremost, Crescent City is known for its stunning coastal scenery, ranging from towering cliffs to sandy beaches perfect for strolling. Don't miss the iconic Battery Point Lighthouse, which is a historic landmark accessible by foot during low tide. Discover the area's rich maritime heritage at the Del Norte County Historical Society Museum, where stories of the sea are passed to the next generation.

Get out and explore the nearby redwood forests, home to some of the largest trees on earth. Plan a hike along the Simpson-Reed trail that takes you through the towering forests on the outskirts of town. Cap off your day with a delicious seafood feast at the renowned seaside restaurant and enjoy the local delicacies while the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean.


Monterey Wharf and Marina in the winter.
Monterey Wharf and Marina, California. Image credit Ken Wolter via Shutterstock

If you are looking for that picture-perfect California town, then look no further than Monterey. Known for its beautiful vistas of the Pacific Ocean, the town invites you to stroll along sandy beaches, soak up the sun, and if you are lucky witness the local marine life. Stop by the Monterey Bay Aquarium which is sure to offer spectacular interactions with wildlife. The town is also a treasure trove of cultural heritage.

Explore the town’s rich past at Monterey State Historic Park where well-preserved adobe buildings and museums offer a glimpse into California's Spanish and Mexican colonial history. To continue your journey through the town’s historical attractions, be sure to stop by the Old Fisherman’s Wharf. Once a vital location for importing goods into the town, the pier is now home to delicious seafood restaurants, markets, and plenty of shops to explore.


Historic old town of Julian, California.
Historic old town of Julian, California. Image credit littlenySTOCK via

Those who visit this beautiful California town are swept away by its vibrant atmosphere and the abundance of history. Start your day with a visit to the Julian Pioneer Museum to learn about the town's Gold Rush past and enjoy the exhibits that show the town's Wild West past. Satisfy your sweet tooth by indulging in one of Julian's famous apple pies at one of the local bakeries, and pick your own apples at Volcan Valley Apple Farm. Don't forget to explore the surrounding natural beauty by hiking the nearby trails or visiting Lake Cuyamaca, which are home to plenty of trails and lush parks perfect for relaxing.

To learn about the local wildlife, don't miss a visit to the California Wolf Center to learn about wolf conservation efforts in the area and the pivotal role the animals play in the local ecosystem. Cap off your day your day by enjoying Julian's clear night skies which is one of the best locations to admire the simplistic beauty of the nighttime sky.

The historic towns scattered throughout California offer a journey through time, rich with stories of the past waiting to be explored. From the Gold Rush-era charm of Jamestown to the Spanish colonial heritage of Monterey, each town provides the opportunity to begin your adventure through these hidden histories of California's history. So, pack your hiking boots and sunscreen and be prepared to be amazed by these historic towns within California.

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